What is a Guild, anyway? Why do we call ourselves a guild, instead of a society, or a club? After all, there’s bar and medical associations, Lion’s and Garden Clubs, and societies for the preservation of just about everything. Being curious, I went poking around for an answer. According to the dictionary, a guild is:
“An organization of persons with related interests, goals, etc., especially one formed for mutual aid or protection.” or “Any of various medieval associations, such as of merchants or artisans, organized to maintain standards and to protect the interests of its members…”
So guilds were formed by artisans, among others. Guilds actually existed for a few urban craftspeople and merchants during the Roman Empire, but once it fell, the idea died too, until the Middle Ages. Their resurrection can be dated to the 1100s in Europe: Augsburg, Germany, has written records of guilds in 1156 AD.
Medieval guilds were very important, formed generally by three different groups: religious fellowships, merchants banding together, and the artists and craftspeople. Woodcarvers, glass and textile workers formed some of the earliest craft guilds we know about. What’s even more interesting is that the formation of modern universities trace back to guilds formed by students in the cities of Oxford, UK, Paris and Bologna, Italy.
Medieval guilds benefitted their members financially and professionally. When recognizing a guild, an area’s king, queen or duke would grant a patent letter so that all official work in a specific craft would need to be funneled to its local guild members. Each guild was a mini monopoly, with its exclusive rights to trade there and the freedom of their city.
Professionally, guilds operated like secret societies, protecting knowledge of their technology and methods of production. Apprentices to a trade were not allowed to progress toward any further expertise until other guild members were confident they would keep their knowledge under wraps. The progression was often from apprentice, (a local beginner in training) to a journeyman, who was allowed to travel elsewhere for about three years and learn under other masters. New techniques were able to spread in this way. Local guilds gave “tramping allowances” to journeymen sometimes so they could find work elsewhere. Guilds operated like insurance also, providing support to member’s widows or orphans. Journeymen progressed to the level of master craftsman, and sometimes grand master. While most medieval guilds consisted of men, there was a small percentage of women-only guilds, such as silk workers in London. There also were female musicians and glass blowers. Widows and daughters of local master craftsmen could also be taken on and trained.
With their monopolies, guilds could maintain a very high level of quality. This quality often became famous; “Chantilly” lace, or champagne from only one small place. Such fame gave rise to the modern idea of the “trade” mark. Guilds still exist in many parts of Europe, and Americans too have the Screen Actors, Writers, and Directors Guilds, as well as the Newspaper Guild. All of these may have more in common with unions.
However, our guild has some venerable history behind its name, and an interest in promoting the work and progress of its members. The biggest difference now seems to be that we don’t keep secrets anymore: we happily share them with others who are interested in learning.